Archives for posts with tag: Herod

Sermon for Evensong on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 1st July 2018

Psalm 53, Jeremiah 11:1-14, Romans 13:1-10

‘…the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God’ (Romans 1:1,2)

Wow! Is St Paul saying that all governments are ‘ordained by God’, and therefore right, therefore to be obeyed, in every case?

What about, obviously what about, President Trump? Are people supposed to regard his government as ‘ordained by God’? Separating little children brutally from their parents. Denouncing climate change treaties. Lying blatantly in public. How could God be behind that sort of thing?

But why pick on President Trump? We can immediately think of awful things that many governments, including our own, have done over the ages. Who invented concentration camps, for example? It wasn’t Adolf Hitler – it was us, in the Boer War. What about Victor Orban in Hungary putting up barriers against poor refugees that the EU, to which Hungary belongs, have agreed to take; or the ‘hostile environment’ for black people which our own government created, with such unjust and cruel consequences for the ‘Windrush Generation’, those West Indians who came at our invitation to drive our buses and be nurses in our hospitals? It doesn’t look at all plausible that all governments, at all times, reflect the will of God.

Think of the terrible controversy over ‘Brexit’. There is no love lost between the factions – and the government seems to be stuck. There’s no clear government policy which we could obey, even if we wanted to. But I’ll come back to that.

And what if you are ‘the powers that be’, if you are a member of the government? Can you claim to be ‘ordained by God’? President Trump might really go for that one, I’m sure.

This all looks pretty unsatisfactory. It looks as though St Paul was as unenlightened about obeying the government of the day as he looks to have been about the status and role of women.

But what about the rule of law? As a Jew, Paul was very conscious of the value of law – in their case, of the Jewish Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch. Jesus had said that he had not come to abolish the law – Matthew 5:17 – but to fulfil it. The rule of law looks less open to abuse than the power of rulers, almost by definition: ‘Be ye ever so high, the law is above you’, as Lord Denning said.

And come to think of it, Jesus himself said something very similar to what Paul said in his Letter to the Romans, when he said, ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, holding up a Roman coin and asking whose head was on it (Mark 12:17, cf. Romans 13:7 – or in Luke 20:22). It seems rather odd, in the context that, at the time when Jesus and, later, Paul were telling people to obey the government, that government was the brutal occupying power of the Roman empire.

That is perhaps why the picture of the ruling authorities which Paul paints is so fierce:

But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Romans 13:4).

He carries a sword. He’s not Dixon of Dock Green. I have to say, in passing, that even today, I do feel rather uncomfortable when I see what our policemen and WPCs are wearing. No more policemen’s helmets and smart blue uniforms with silver buttons. Now they look like storm troopers from Mad Max 2, with ghastly baseball caps. I need one of our police members of St Mary’s please to explain! I must be missing something.

I think that, if we take into account the historical context of St Paul’s letter, we can understand that, for example, as the leading Pauline scholar James Dunn from Durham has said [Dunn, J.D.G., (1998) 2005, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London, T & T Clark, pp 674f], this apparent ‘quietism’ in the face of what were often bad, oppressive governments was partly explained as being in accordance with the Jewish tradition that there was ‘wisdom’ in government and wisdom shown by rulers – the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’, for instance – but also that putting up with rulers was ‘the realism of the little people, of the powerless’. (Dunn p. 679).

The church, at this early stage, (Paul was writing within 20 years of the Crucifixion), was a series of secret ‘house churches’, cell groups. As such, they were more vulnerable than the Jews in their synagogues. The Romans knew what the Jews were, and tolerated them – indeed, they gave them some devolved, delegated authority, so day to day power was passed down to King Herod. But although Christianity started as a Jewish sect, St Paul had succeeded in widening it out so as to appeal also to non-Jews, ‘Gentiles’ as well. As such, the Romans might well have regarded the Christians as seditious, as revolutionaries like the Zealots. Indeed, one of the disciples, the other Simon, not Simon Peter, was indeed a ‘Zealot,’ according to Luke chapter 6.

So the early Christians would not have wanted to draw the authorities’ attention to themselves, in case they were pursued as being terrorists like the Zealots. But arguably the most important thing for St Paul was what he said about how obedience to the law – and he didn’t distinguish between the Jewish law and the law of the land – how obedience to the law, and therefore how obedience to the government – depends on Jesus’ great new commandment, to love one another. He says,

‘Leave no claim outstanding against you, except that of mutual love. He who loves his neighbour has satisfied every claim of the law.

For the commandments, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet’, and any other commandment there may be, are all summed up in the one rule,

Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love cannot wrong a neighbour; therefore the whole law is fulfilled by love.’ (Romans 13:8-9, NEB)

I think that gives us another angle. There’s a hierarchy of authority under God here. Some ‘powers’ trump – sorry, bad word – some ‘powers’ have higher authority than that which the ‘powers that be’ have, albeit those powers are ordained by the Almighty. We are, after all, all children of God, some better than others. Think what tonight’s rather dystopian Psalm, Psalm 53, says.

God looked down from heaven upon the children of men

to see if there were any, that would understand, and seek after God.

But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable

there is also none that doeth good, no not one.

So with other things that God has made. He may have made better things. We can still use our critical faculties to assess whether a given regime conforms with Jesus’ rule of love.

This chapter 13 in the Letter to the Romans comes just after a line in the previous chapter, which, I think, confirms the overall rationale. Paul says,

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)

His words are a strong echo of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Paul says:

Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.

Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.

Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

So what you have to do, Paul suggests, is not let yourself be sidetracked into sterile opposition against whichever politician it is you disapprove of, but overcome what you think they do wrong they do by putting good deeds up against it as far as you can, and ultimately turning the other cheek. Those are the marks of a true Christian.

Perhaps I can leave you with my own personal conundrum here. I would stress that it is only my personal view.

Our government is apparently committed, by what it calls ‘the will of the people’, expressed in a referendum in which 37% voted in favour, to leave the EU. I personally believe that unless this ‘Brexit’ is stopped, our country faces catastrophe. I acknowledge that many other people don’t agree with me.

Does St Paul have anything to say here? I just do not believe that what he says means that Christians have to support our government. I think that it is much more believable that our system of government, in which a loyal opposition plays a vital part, could indeed have been ‘ordained by God’. A Christian must obey the system, the apparatus of government: but they can still choose to support either the government or the opposition.

And I do hope and pray that everyone on each side of the Brexit issue will eventually rise above it and become friends again. But first, I think we have to find a way, indeed perhaps by prayer, to avoid a catastrophe.

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Sermon for Evensong on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, the Feast of
Christ the King
2 Samuel 23:1-7, Matt. 28:16-end

The other day in the Guardian there was an extended article, in a section which they now call ‘the long read’, about Prince Charles, and what sort of a king he would be when eventually he accedes to the throne. Apparently it’s not something he likes to talk about, because to do so would necessarily mean that he would have to be thinking about the death of his beloved mother, the Queen.

I think that’s rather endearing. I read the article with extra interest, knowing that I was going to be preaching tonight, on the Sunday when we celebrate Christ the King. It’s a relatively new festival in Christianity – it began in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925. Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King as a reaction against what he perceived as a rising tide of secularism. People had forgotten the importance of God.

Actually I preached only last week about the text from the Gospel according to St Matthew which was our New Testament lesson tonight, Jesus’ Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all the world.

It isn’t the Gospel reading which one most readily associates with the idea of Jesus as King. This morning the lesson was Matthew 25, ‘Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat, …’ You remember, when they asked when they had done this, Jesus replied, ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’ – one of the most powerful social justice and charitable love messages that Jesus ever gave.

Jesus the King was King in heaven, and He was dividing the sheep and the goats in the Last Judgment. The Gospel writer expected Jesus to be an absolute monarch, splendid in majesty and power.

We are not used to absolute monarchs now, today in England. After Magna Carta our kings are ‘constitutional monarchs’ with powers constrained and restricted. The will of the people, expressed in Parliament, is sovereign.

King David, the greatest king of the Jews, in his last words, in the first lesson, from 2 Samuel, affirmed that God had told him that ‘One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of the morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.’ That’s the poetry of the man who wrote the Psalms, describing kingship in a similar vein to Magna Carta. The king is subject to higher authority, and, respecting that higher authority, he must rule justly: not capriciously or cruelly.

Reading the article about Prince Charles,[http://gu.com/p/43dtt, ] I found that the author was concerned that perhaps Charles, who has a habit of writing to people in public life and expressing very forthright views, would be much more assertive in public than the Queen has been, and is. The thrust of the article was to ask whether Charles would throw his weight around in an anti-democratic way.

I confess that I was somewhat uneasy about the Monarchy when I was a young man. What was it that made the Queen and her family better than you or me, so that we owed her respect – reverence, almost. What was her strength? Why would we go through elaborate rigmaroles when she was about?

That feeling in me changed completely, when my Father got the OBE. My mother, my brother and I went with him to the investiture in Buckingham Palace. We sat no more than a few feet away from where Her Majesty was standing. She had someone standing next to her to pass her the medals, but no notes or prompts.

She bestowed medals on about 75 people. What was amazing was that she seemed to know about every single one that she was giving a medal to. She spoke to my Father for a couple of minutes – which felt much longer, of course – and clearly she had carefully researched all that Dad had been doing.

She had done this thorough preparation for every single person that she decorated that day. It must have been a big task of preparation – and just think, she must have to do a similar job several times a year. It speaks volumes that, after so many years, the Queen still takes it upon herself to prepare and get to know exactly what her loyal subjects have been doing, the reason why they have been awarded the medals.

The Queen is reported to say that this hard work is just part of the job. She has a very strong ethic of service. The Queen is modest enough to do masses of homework, so that she can serve her people in a professional way. My Dad was really impressed. Although he was dying, the whole thing really bucked him up. He really did walk taller after getting his OBE from the Queen.

And I ceased to have republican leanings. In a minute we will pray for our Queen; I will lead the prayers; and I’ll really mean it.

I do hope that Prince Charles will be similarly imbued with an ethic of service. He has had to lead a rather odd life so far. In the article which I read, for example. It describes Prince Charles visiting Chester Cathedral.

‘Inside the cathedral, the strangeness of Prince Charles’s life came into focus. … Some modernist choir stalls, installed 15 years ago, caught his disapproving eye. “Doesn’t quite go,” the prince announced, locking eyes with the senior churchman. “It may be time for a review.” …. Finally, in the cloister, Charles was invited to hold Grace the golden eagle, a magnificent bird who, moments earlier, had evacuated her bowels explosively on to this reporter’s notebook.’ A close shave for the Prince.

Apart from the eagle, Charles seemed to act as though he was in charge. Telling the Dean of a cathedral that his seating ‘didn’t quite go’ and that it was ‘time for a review’ doesn’t sound like someone whose prime object is to serve.

But that is it. The Servant King. That is a modern hymn which we can like. Think of the passage in St Mark chapter 10: ‘You know that among the Gentiles [in the context, it must mean, among the Romans], those whom they recognise as their rulers [their kings] lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But …. whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, …’

Jesus’ kingship was not like a Roman emperor’s. Not even like Herod, the puppet king, king of the Jews, who would soon condemn Him. These men had considerable power in the secular sphere, we say, ‘on earth’. They had the power of life and death. Jesus, Jesus the man, didn’t have that kind of power.

‘Pilate said to Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”… Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world,to testify to the truth.”‘ (John 18:33b, 36-37).

So we come back to this question, what makes a real king. King David said that he must fear God and deal justly; our Queen is giving her service, committed and faithful to her people. Prince Charles already does a great deal of charitable work – but he must not stray into autocracy. He needs to be a Servant King, just as his mother is a Servant Queen.

And the Servant King, the original Servant King, will be with us till the end of the age. As Bob Dylan sang, ‘You’re gonna have to serve somebody.’ Christ the King. Let us indeed serve Him.